Next Previous Contents

Chapter 6: I Was a Jackass Today

She's from my village, not Angela, but we're naked in that little patch of grass from yesterday, and the dream vanishes, pop, but oh, no! My dick is creaming for real. It doesn't even feel good. This happened to me twice before, as well as to my brother, and we handled it, when we got up and the event couldn't be hidden, by starting a highly embellished description of the dream, which would be cut short by a swat from my father, but I think he thought it a manly sign. Simba won't. I'd better think of something fast.

Shadow: Eeuw, what's that smell? Oh. (I have enough practice with spoken Tiger signs to handle that without translation.)

Tiger (in Shqip): Hmph. Spring is in the air, apparently. Gerbil, mop yourself with a dry corner of your sheet, then take it and I suppose your blanket over to the latrine and wash them. And yourself. Bring them back here to air-dry; I'll show you how to set up a clothesline. Do you need Shadow to help you carry the soap?

Me: No, I can manage.

Tiger: If we're gone running when you come back, stretch, and finish your exercise later in the morning.

Simba merely glowers. I got off a lot lighter than I'd expected. I don't totally understand how Tiger and Simba think. But Tiger said they'd had human orphans before, and this kind of dream just happens to young men, at least the ones I know, and maybe they understand that and are willing to, what was the word Tiger used? To show forbearance when it wasn't a deliberate challenge. OK, which gets done first: sheet, blanket, or me?

OK, my stuff is clean but damp. These peoples' attitude about clothes is so convenient: if I'd had to dress before coming over here I'd have had to wash the clothes too! There's a rope newly appeared between one corner pole of the tent and a neighboring tree, and I drape the blanket and sheet over it, pulling them out to dry evenly.

Simba: Good, you're back. Your mush is still warm; it's in the microwave oven. We're just about to leave. Be prudent today, OK?

Me: Yes, Simba. I'm sorry about what happened; I didn't mean it as a challenge. (This as I quickly dress, wearing my new shirt.)

Simba: I understand. Hug, Shadow?

I get a pat on the back. And Tiger and Simba are gone.

Me: Gerbil eat and exercise.

Shadow: Gerbil will eat, then exercise.

I open up my computer, log on, and put the two new signs into my word list, and then I make myself into the referent of the sentence.

Well, I've put in a good solid period of word study, then wrist twisting with particular emphasis on past and future signs, which have their own twist. Evidently the programs talk to each other, and when the time signs got on my word lesson list, the wrist twisting lesson program decided that I supposedly knew them and needed to be shown how to use them properly. Shadow and I did our bar exercises first, so as not to be out running when Angela came around. And I've done as much joining and splitting flocks as I want to for one sitting. The program has me going from less than twenty to more than twenty cute little ducklings, or more then ten to less than ten spotted fawns, which takes some mental gymnastics. My butt is sore and like Shadow I'm starting to fidget. Where is Angela?

In the future when I'm to meet Angela, or anyone else, I'll have to be sure when and where the meeting will occur. And that means I'll have to learn how these people do clocks. And what do you want to bet, their magics include kind of a clock for places? It will all be in the computer, and I'm probably looking right at it, but I don't know enough language to ask Shadow to show me. I do, however, know enough to ask Angela, if she'd ever show up.

Young lady outside (in spoken signs): Hi there, Gerbil! If you're (finished) with Angela maybe you'd like to begin (unknown words) with me.

I look at Shadow and he looks at me. My lessons in wrist twisting apply equally to spoken signs, by the voice pitch, and let me interpret quite a bit of what she said, enough to be sure of the general meaning: I've been cuckolded! Both Shadow and I stick our heads out the tent flap (and she giggles). Shadow has a rapid-fire conversation and I'm left to decide what to do.

First, this young lady's proposition might appeal to my brother, but I've talked to Simba enough to know not to take her up on it. I can't form a team with her because of the language problem, and my instructions are to keep teamwork with Angela as long as I can stand it. But thinking realistically, Simba expects me to fail eventually, and I don't have a lot of confidence that he's wrong. So I need to get rid of the young lady politely and positively, so in the future, definitely not the present, I can see if the offer might be renewed. Thanks to Shadow, and good luck, for giving me the signs I need to express that. I build a sentence.

Me: Angela and I will become a team. In the future I will meet you.

Young lady: OK, it's your (something). See you later.

To Shadow I frown. An Illyrian jackass, myself included, would immediately stomp off to beat the interloper to a pulp. I, however, have had some brutal lessons in the consequence of being a jackass, and I've also seen how well that strategy worked for my brother. At least I should try to make a plan and communicate it to Shadow. Do we know where Angela is? Find out. Then we appear, as suddenly as possible. We yell at Angela, or turn on the charm, or make her feel guilty, or whatever seems to be working. Now here's an advantage my older brother never had: I have a younger brother who's formidable and loyal, who's willing and probably able to talk Angela into leaving the scene. Best if she comes back here. I'll keep the rival from following.

This does not mean beating him to a pulp! If you attack you lose, says Tiger. And the young man probably will have a lot more combat lessons than me. It's probably me who will get beaten to a pulp. But that's the way with young men, and wimping out is pure cowardice. I'll do the best I can in the ensuing fight. The goal will be to keep him there until Angela is safe, and then to extricate myself reasonably honorably, considering that young ladies will surely be watching and giggling. My goal will not be to ``win'' after an attack; it will be to not lose too badly. OK, the plan is made. Let's do it. Before I lose my nerve.

Me: Where is Angela?

Shadow: Angela swim.

Oh, no, the nude come-on again! It's going to take all my discipline to keep from freaking out. Freaking out ruins everything. Tiger and Simba have to keep a lid on it every day, and their jobs are a lot harder and more dangerous than mine. I'm going to make them proud. I'm going to make myself proud.

Shadow: You want... (He takes a piece of a leaf that's been tracked in, holds it up, then drops it pointedly into the trash can.)

Me: No. I not make team broken. Say to Angela, Angela, Gerbil and Shadow are a team. Then Angela and Shadow will come here and stay here. OK?

Shadow: Where will you be?

Me: At the young man.

Shadow, extending claws: Shadow and Gerbil are a team.

Me: Teamwork here, teamwork with the young man. Shadow and Angela come here and stay here. And Tiger say what about (I point at the now-sheathed claws).

Shadow: OK. Shadow and Angela here do what?

Me: Team of Angela, Shadow and Gerbil is broken. Fix it. Please.

Shadow: OK. Come.

Both of us think alike tactically: approaching the swimming pond we angle to place a clump of bushes between ourselves and the miscreants, and the gaggle of gossipers trying to not be seen to stare. At least they still have their pants on, though not their shirts. This is going to be bad. Besides being more experienced than me, the rival is clearly larger and clearly older. Remember! My goal is to get Angela out of there and have Shadow work on her. It's to detain and distract the rival, not to beat him up. There's no point in waiting; we emerge around the bushes.

Me (in Shqip): Angela! You and I and Shadow are a team. So go home with Shadow. Now!

I see that Angela is shocked, but the young man is furious. Shadow and I make a pincers movement. The young man advances but turns around when Angela speaks.

Angela: Pick someone good for yourself, Gerbil. I don't deserve you.

Me (in spoken signs): We're a team. We all said it. So don't break it without talking it over first. Go with Shadow.

Young man: (Whatever he says is forceful, rejecting and loud.)

Shadow: Come on, Angela.

The young man spins back and I shout at him and he turns back to me. Shadow has Angela by the hand and is leading her off, behind the young man's back. That part of the plan is working. Now I have to do my part.

Me: Angela and I are a team. Angela and you aren't a team. (I wish I could toss in a crack about dick toys, but I don't know enough words.)

He growls something at me and charges with his fist clenched. I don't give him the pleasure; I retreat downstream. Now he's higher on the bank than I am, though the sandy soil is collapsing under his bare feet. He bears down on me, striking out at me, but I dodge and push him on his arm; he stumbles into the water. I retreat downstream some more. The water doesn't bother him a bit; he's back on me, but I've stepped up the bank, steeper here, which he has to climb, and my arm push leads him to climb higher. He jumps down on me, his fist heading for my face, and I duck and bounce off him with my hips; he can't grab me in this position. His foot slips on a muddy patch and he goes down on his side fully in the water. He screams something uncomplimentary and, dripping wet, he's on me. The arm shove saves me again, and I step a little closer to the water, where I believe the mud is. He's charging again down the bank --- but not as uncontrolled; he's going to do something nasty. And he does: as I push his fist away, taking a big step backward, I see it's a feint as he spins to turn on me and nail me with the other hand. Oops! His foot slips out from under him and he falls heavily on the smeared mud. I retreat again, but he isn't getting up; he's holding his foot and I can see blood welling from the coating of mud.

Now what? An Albanian jackass would take the opportunity to win, pounding patterns into his rival's face and leaving poison behind.

Me: Done, OK?

Young man, grimacing: Fight's over. (I'm guessing that's the word for fight.)

Now what? Probably I should walk off. But let's think. Tiger thinks she's helping by shooting Illyrians. She helped me; she put her life on the line for me. Shadow is like that too. My family will expect me to learn from them.

Me: I help fix. Wash. (And I splash my foot in the water to show him what I want him to do.)

He does it; then I squat (a little sideways so if he freaks he'll have trouble to kick me in the balls) and I examine his foot, already rebloodied. It's bad. There must have been a sharp rock hiding in the mud. The cut goes all the way across and it's deep. I can't fix it, but the doctors in the big building probably can.

Me: Come.

I stand on one leg demonstrating hopping, then hold out my hands to help him rise. He gets the idea. With me supporting him on the injured side, we hobble to the clinic. He's definitely heavier than me, and all muscle.

Young man: My name is Phil. Thanks for helping me. I (words I don't know.)

Me: I'm Gerbil. I know few words.

It's hard walking like this, for both of us, and we save our breath. At last, here's the clinic, and the same lady soldier. This time, nobody is waiting.

Me (in Shqip): This is Phil. We were fighting, and he cut his foot on a sharp rock. Can the doctors put it back together?

Lady soldier: I'm sure they can. (And she turns her attention to Phil, examining his foot, which is still dripping blood. Then:) Would you help Phil go to a procedure room? Just follow the nurse there.

I deposit Phil in the same room where I got my liver worm out.

Phil: Thank you, Gerbil. Go to Angela.

Me: I will see you later. (I'm sure I've chosen the wrong word, but Phil gives me a friendly wave through his pain.)

Well! By taking my cue from Tiger and Shadow I may (or may not) have made a male friend in this village, but I've avoided making a poisonous enemy. This evening that will be one item I'll deserve praise for. No, that's not how I should say it. I can honestly take pride in what I did, not being the jackass, and I hope others will recognize that, and if they don't it's their mistake.

Actually what I did with Phil was not too difficult. The hard part comes next: what to do with Angela. I know the sign for jackass, having seen Simba and Tiger use it enough times, and I can imagine it plastered all over my forehead. I take a deep breath and go into the tent. Angela is here, as planned, sitting on Shadow's mat, but where is Shadow? No time for that now. Her face is streaked with tears and she resumes raining at my advent. I sit opposite her on my own mat.

Me (in their language): Angela, are Angela, Shadow and Gerbil a team?

Angela (in Shqip): I don't deserve you. You deserve a good girl, not one like me.

Me: Angela, I don't know what you're talking about. We're trying to be a team. We can't do it if members, um, switch all the time. Is it different among your people?

Angela: You don't want me, Gerbil. Go and find someone better! Any of the girls would be better for you than me.

Here's Shadow... with Angela's computer. He couldn't let her go back through the war zone, alone or accompanied. I'm not sure he should have disobeyed instructions, but I ruffle his fur to reinforce my support of him.

Me: Shadow, do you have any idea what Angela is saying? (I do my best to translate for myself, since Angela doesn't seem to be going to.)

Shadow speaks to Angela, berates her, entreats her, goes through every style. Sometimes in the village some kids would put on a play, minus adults because they were the ones being parodied, and Shadow's performance reminds me of what we did then. But this is for real! Finally his tail stands straight up and he puts his hands on his hips like a real person.

Shadow (I can understand the simple words): Say in teamwork with us: Angela... Come on, say it! Angela, Shadow and Gerbil are a team! Angela, Shadow and Gerbil are a team. Angela, Shadow and Gerbil are a team!

She joins the first chorus in a tiny voice, and I come in, controlling my voice so as not to overwhelm, for my own name. We had group yells like this when preparing for raids, and it's not just kid stuff; it really helps to get your blood boiling. I'm more forceful on the second round, and Angela is louder too, and my voice booms for the third chorus, and I scoot close and wrap my arms around a startled Shadow and, of course, Angela. She floods my shirt front with tears.

Angela: I don't deserve you. I don't know why you're taking me back after what I did to you.

Me: Are we still a team, Angela?

Angela: Yes. I'm sorry. Why aren't you mad at me? How bad did Phil hurt you?

Me (in spoken signs, for Shadow): I not hurt. Phil hurt --- here (the foot). I took him to the doctor (back to Shqip). Would you translate that for Shadow? Now if we're going to keep the team together, we really have to work on what to do, to accomplish that. When you went and got sexual with Phil, I really felt dumped, and Shadow did too. Why, what were you trying to accomplish by doing that? Remember to translate for Shadow.

Pluvial sobbing. But I've learned from my brother that young women are like that, and you just have to wait it out. I handsign to Shadow for patience, when he seems to be about to open his mouth.

Angela: I lied (sob) to you and Shadow. Yesterday Shadow talked me into being a regular girl, and it was wonderful, but it was a lie. Gerbil, I'm a tart. (Shadow looks shocked.)

Me: We don't use that slang in my village. Try another word.

Angela: A loose woman. A whore.

Me: You do it for money?

Angela: Now I'm just practicing, but I'll run away from home and get a job.

Me: No! You'll always have a place with me.

Jackass! My punishment for that one will be harsh. Making commitments that I understand all too well, that are beyond my ability to deliver on. Well, I did it, and an Albanian man keeps his word, or is supposed to. We're going to need a bucket in here for all the tears.

Me: Why, Angela? Why did you decide to be a whore? I'm sorry to push, but Shadow is very good with people and I think we should keep him involved.

Angela: Because I am one! Shadow said, what makes you think that? I'll tell you. I'll tell you the whole rotten story and you'll know I'm a whore. When I was eleven years old, Tommy Millikan, he was a kid in my school in seventh grade, before the collapse, and I don't know what happened to him, but anyway. Saturday afternoon my parents went out, and he came over, and we were messing around. With our clothes off. On the couch. I had tits at eleven and he was getting hair. They came back, and we were right there! My dad threw Tommy out, literally threw him into the hall, and threw his clothes after him. Then he took off his belt and gave my little arse a good licking. His little angel was no angel, he said; his little angel was a fucking tart!

Shadow emits an outraged squawk, and now I'm being excluded from the conversation. The event sounds very Albanian. My brother was in that exact situation, several times, though he wasn't shown the forbearance that Tommy Millikan got.

Me: Could I get in here again? Translate for Shadow. Of course your father was angry and yelled at you and beat you, but it sounds like just the kind of thing young people do. So where does the whore part come in?

More conversation between Angela and Shadow, punctuated by a cloudburst. I'm feeling fidgety, and put upon, and left out, and generally impatient. But I know Shadow is good with people, and being selfish, about this thing which is very important to me and is causing me a whole lot of pain, is going to mess it up thoroughly. So I hold my tongue and trust Shadow yet again.

Angela: Shadow says, when you say something, that makes it true. My dad said I'm a tart, so that makes it true: I'm a tart.

Me: You're not a tart. I said it; that makes it true. You aren't a whore.

Angela: It doesn't work that way.

Me: Translate this for Shadow. Remember what Simba said about helping, about not being a jackass trying to help when you don't know how? When something has gone really wrong, we should get someone experienced to help us. Who? Simba and Tiger: we'll have to wait until dinner and we don't know how bad shape they'll be in. Doctors in the big building? This isn't a worm or a bullet. Mrs. Ruka? She's nice, but we already made one mistake that she missed, and also, she's, well, the older generation, if you know what I mean. Shadow, do you know any adults who could help Angela?

Shadow: Yes, Selen! Angela, would you talk to Selen? He's very (unknown word).

Me: Please, Angela, do it. Trust Shadow. What you're feeling isn't right, and Shadow's friend may be able fix it, where we can't.

Angela: Oh, Gerbil, I don't deserve you and Shadow.

Oh, no, we're back to the bottom of the hill. But Angela is very sexual...

Me: If you could get your head straight again, we could go up into the hills. I really liked that yesterday. We could do it again. But we have to stay a team, and you have to be able to say, Gerbil and Angela and Shadow are a team. A good team. OK, Angela? Say it with me: Angela, Shadow and Gerbil are a team...

At last we have the program set up. Shadow was smart to have Angela show me how to work it, because it keeps her momentum going. He's really very good with people, particularly for someone so young. Angela types in one window of the program, on her computer, rather than signing to Shadow, who has a duplicate set of windows on his own machine, as do I. I understand few of the signs and I'm not fast enough to contribute by typing. Angela will translate if I have anything to say, and will read all the signs to me.

Angela: This looks like a web form, not NetBoard. (I don't know what that is, but NetBoard is the name of the program we're using.)

Shadow: It probably is a web form. Ask for Selen in the box at the bottom, and mention my name. Mark this one: conflict with parents.

Angela: Not with boyfriend?

Shadow: Your problem is with your parents, not with Gerbil, right? Let's submit the form. Someone will answer promptly. I hope it's Selen.

I memorize Selen's sign. The writing is replaced by a picture of some yellow flowers. By my father's standards the response is far from prompt, as if someone had to go to another building to fetch Selen, but his sign eventually appears. Angela translates.

Selen: Good morning, Angela, Shadow and Gerbil. Gerbil, I wish I could get to know you a bit, and Shadow, I wish I could catch up on how you're doing, but this is Angela's session, so I think we should mainly concentrate on her problem. Is that OK?

Me (in my area, typed): Yes, Selen.

Selen: Well, then, Angela, could you tell me something about the problem you're having with your parents?

Angela: It's kind of complicated.

Me (by voice): Maybe you should tell him just what you told me. Shadow understood it right away.

Angela seems to be writing down my suggestion for Selen as I say it. Then she goes on to a longer piece of text, punctuated by sniffs. At the end I can see Shadow raise his tail in outrage; he's about to start typing, to start hammering the keys.

Me, quietly: Shadow! Talk when Selen talks to you. OK?

He lowers his tail. Angela is concentrating on what Selen is telling her, not on translating. I support my team patiently. Fresh drips darken her white shirt.

Angela: He wants me to talk to my parents! Gerbil, I can't. I just can't.

Me: We're a team, Angela. We'll stand with you, if you want. Be brave. Translate that for Selen and Shadow, and ask Shadow for advice.

I was going to say that if Selen says to do it, it's important, but I remind myself that I have to go by what's real, and all I know about Selen is a few words of praise from Shadow. He's probably right, and I'd trust Selen, I think, on that basis, but it would be jackass behavior to say that to Angela, and not Albanian for her to believe me if I did. Shadow responds on the board, and Selen converses with Angela some more.

Angela: I'm going to do it. But what do I say?

Me: Well, what are you trying to get them to do? (And why aren't you asking this of Selen, the expert? She distractedly translates my response but I didn't see her typing when she spoke to me.)

Angela: I want them to stop saying I'm a tart. Selen says, how often do they say it, and who usually says it? They're thinking it! They just look at me, and I know what they're thinking!

Me: I have a lot of experience with people thinking about me. You have to do what you've decided to do, and be brave and stay with it, and if people care about what's real, like is common around here, they'll think right about you. And you will too. I'm sorry, Selen; maybe I'm saying too much.

Angela: Selen says it's good advice, and to tell me what you told Tiger about cowardice.

Me: She got advice from Selen how to handle me? She never said. OK, in my village I sometimes refused to do jackass things that were only going to get us into trouble, and because of that I was considered a coward. I didn't let the other kids push me into being stupid. But I'd been told I was a coward so many times that I believed it. Like what Shadow said: they say something and that makes it true. But when Tiger captured me I had to be brave, and a bunch of other stuff that was pretty hard, and Tiger said I was brave, not a coward, and I came to see that she was right. We're telling you that messing around with a boy in your house, not off in the woods, may have been stupid, but it doesn't make you a whore. It would have been better for you to say that back then, take the beating, but keep your own self-respect and maybe, if they aren't jackasses, the respect of your parents. What you didn't do then, it's time to do it now, I think Selen is saying.

Angela: So what do I say? Just like that, tell them that I might have been stupid to get caught with Tommy and no clothes, but that doesn't make me a tart?

Me: It's a good start. What does Selen think?

Angela: He says he agrees. So what about all the tart behavior, coming on to boys like I do? You saw my style.

Me: You said, I'm a tart so this is how I'm supposed to behave. Right? I have to do it all the time: I have to remind myself, I'm not going to be an Illyrian jackass any more, so this is how I have to behave. It really works. But my change was an improvement, while yours... wasn't.

Angela: Come on! You're good because you're good.

Me: Keep up the translation. When I fought with Phil today and he cut his foot, I said to myself, now's my chance to beat the shit out of him. I was angry and I really wanted to. But I immediately said, attack and lose. My plan was to keep him by the pond while Shadow got you away, and I'd succeeded, and I didn't have to spit any more poison. Then I had to decide, just walk off, which would have been the safest, or help him with his foot. I thought of that because Tiger and Shadow and other people help, not just leave you there. Tiger may be brutal, but she's trying to help; she explained it to me and that's what you have to do with Illyrian jackasses; I know because I am one. I learned how I wanted to behave in my new world, and I try to keep myself doing what I decided. You can do the same thing. I could be an example for you.

Angela: Selen says to tell you he likes what you did, and I should learn from you. OK, I'm going to be brave. I've wanted for years to tell off my parents and I'm going to go in there and do it! And having a boy there, I mean a young man, to tell them Angela is in my team, would really impress them, and if they see that somebody believes in me maybe they will too. Shadow, I'm leaving you out; I'm sorry. You were so good, telling me over and over to believe what's real. Maybe you could tell the same thing to them. Would you?

Shadow: Yes (of course with more elaborate signs).

Me: Angela, that's good and brave. But remember, the word here is, if you attack, you lose. What's your goal? I suggest you try to get your parents on your team, not just fight with them. How could we do that?

Angela: Selen says that's a real good way to put it. But parents aren't like, you know, regular people. They're crazy; they want to control you. When I go and say this is how I am, not the way you think, they'll fight. Selen says that's funny, because he's a parent, but he understands about controlling kittens, enough but not too much.

Me: Like what Simba said: he'll let me get into trouble and get myself out, unless he decides I'm messing it up too badly. You know, just about every adult I know is, or was, a parent. They aren't all crazy. Young people grow up to become parents too.

Angela: You haven't met my parents. It's not going to be as easy as you three think. I guess we'll just have to play it by ear.

Me: We don't use that slang. I guess you mean we'll do our best, and figure out what to do depending on how they react.

Angela: Selen says he thinks we have it figured out pretty well. He says we should just do our normal things this afternoon, not going round and round making plans that are just going to have to be changed on the fly, and making ourselves nervous. He's given me a special URL so if we need help later we can call him and this file will just pop up on his screen. But now he wants to talk to you, Gerbil. Can you type in Shqip?

Me: No. You'll have to translate.

Angela: No, see the middle menu? Fourth item from the top, it says ``voice''. Select that.

So why didn't we do that at the beginning? Because it was Angela's session, of course. Now it's mine.

Me: Hello, Selen; can you hear me?

Selen: Yes, Gerbil; I'm happy to meet you. I think Angela is pretty lucky to find a young man like you, Gerbil. How are you getting along in Tiger and Simba's family? (He translates for Shadow too.)

Me: Well, OK, I guess. I'm learning your language, slowly. I'm working on wrist twisting, and joining and separating flocks, and writing reports. I've had my first lessons in your style of unarmed and armed combat. I learned to take care of Chang bushes and I got a rather small amount of money selling one batch of seeds. Most of my learning has been from the computer, and most of the rest has been from Shadow. We've built a good team, and now, working together, we're helping Angela become part of it. Shadow is really a very fine brother; we weren't sure at the beginning, but now we work together and like each other very much. Tiger and Simba, their emphasis is that I'm going to grow up soon to the point where I have to take care of myself, and they're helping me learn their ways in doing that, which are a lot harder than in an Albanian village where everyone knows what to do. Shadow and I have been punished, but we've done more right than screwed up.

Selen: That's a good report, Gerbil, and I'm glad to hear you're doing well. The lessons about flocks, that's about how many things are in them, right?

Me: Yes, sir. I learned about numbers counting my flock different ways, and that's how I think of it.

Selen: Yes, Tiger mentioned that. Now, would it be OK to talk a little about your parents?

Me: Like in how do I deal with living with Tiger and respecting her and worrying about her when she and Simba are trying to bring population control to Illyrian jackasses? Albanian jackasses?

Selen: Right, Gerbil. That's a good place to start.

Me: Well, maybe it's not. I think Tiger needs to tell Shadow some things about me.

Selen: That's a good point, and I'll remind her. That's a euphemism; I'm sure she hasn't forgotten.

Shadow: What things about Gerbil? (Those signs are simple.)

Me: Sir, could you translate for Shadow? Remember your flying leap, and how we decided that you should tell about it, not me? This is the same thing: Tiger should tell you what she's done, not me or Selen. Can you wait for her to be ready?

Shadow: I guess.

Me: Sir, I can tell you some of what I'm thinking. Tiger explained population control to me, like she promised, before I decided whether to accept the shot. It's a good thing, I think, if I don't have to worry that my family might be pushed aside by a bigger one. And there's only so much pasture land and only so much fertilizer and ant perfume; my village had to raid others to get those, and we got raided but we were too strong for them. As we grew we would have had even more trouble with pasture and supplies. I worried about that even before Tiger and her soldiers came, but I never told anyone; they would have said it's another of my cowardly thoughts.

Shadow: Jackasses! (I've seen Simba use that sign often enough to memorize it. Selen does not translate, or comment. Angela is giving me a funny look.)

Me: But Tiger did come. Is it right to slaughter everyone in my village? What do you think, sir?

Selen: Definitely it's wrong.

Me: You're awfully honest.

Selen: Has Tiger talked with you about concentrating on what's real, rather than what you'd like to believe, or what's going to make you comfortable?

Me: Frequently. I try to be honest too, now.

Selen: Then be honest with me on another question: Is it right to not slaughter your village?

Me: Of course! If one is wrong then the other is right.

Selen: So what happens if Tiger is kind and gentle with your people? What happens to population control?

Me: They'd die before they would accept it. They did die. Most of the adults, and that included the women, thought we could survive by being tougher and meaner than the Croats and Serbs and Montenegrins around us, and raiding them for supplies. We were pushing them aside. Population control doesn't work unless everyone does it.

Selen: So is it wrong to let them push? To survive by raiding?

Me: I thought we decided it was wrong to kill them.

Selen: We did, but we're answering a different question now.

Me: Well, it's either slaughter us or let us slaughter our neighbors. I went on two raids. But they can't both be wrong. How could that be?

Selen: Welcome to the real world. On Thor we talked about this before we left: we were sticking our noses into a situation where every choice would be wrong, and we'd have to be willing to commit horrors and take the consequences. I'm lucky; being here I don't have the responsibility to kill, and I don't think I could take it day in and day out. I wish you could know Tiger and Simba as I do, as kind and caring and brilliant people. Putting Simba in particular on the back end of a gun is a desecration. But we all agreed that to not act, to not kill, was a worse desecration. And when we got here, it was a hundred times worse than we expected. I think Tiger will be disappointed if you don't give her the gift you promised.

Me: What gift? If I promised her a gift I'd better know what it is.

Selen: Think about it. Think how she must feel. Later. But you just asked me whether I thought Tiger was doing wrong. How am I doing at answering your question?

Me: Pretty well. I have a decision to make, about the agreement with Tiger, and I think I'd better make it pretty soon because it involves Shadow. Damn, why do things have to get so tangled? And the way today is going, well, the way Shadow said it yesterday is, I'm going to have to give something up. Only do the most important stuff.

Selen: I think I get the picture, and I'll take it as a hint. I think you're doing fine, Gerbil, and I'm confident you'll decide wisely. I would like to talk with you later, in a few days or a week when the pressure is a little less. Call me like Angela did just now, at the regular URL, but ask for me by name. OK?

Me: Yes, sir. And thank you for your advice. I'll run NetBoard in a week.

Selen: Finally, Shadow, your turn. How's it going? (They're mainly clattering away in written signs, but Selen is translating for my benefit. Angela is looking at her hands unhappily. I hadn't planned on being counseled myself, and I hope we can get Angela involved soon.)

Shadow: I only had the nightmares three times this week. And getting Gerbil as my brother, well, a lot of parts have been really hard, and like him, I've had to make some decisions that were hard, but it's mostly so much fun! I'm learning to be tough and responsible, and I'm learning to figure out how he's thinking, because you know he only knows a few words, and I have to think how to say it so he'll think the same as me. You know.

Selen: Shadow, I'm glad you're doing so well with Gerbil! On the nightmares, which ones did you have?

Shadow: Once when I bit the person's throat, and the screaming falling one happened twice. I watched him fall in the dream, not like what really happened.

Selen: Twice on the same night?

Shadow: No, only once. And when I woke up, I didn't need Tiger or Simba; I told myself it was all over, and Tiger and Simba and Gerbil love me, and I can take care of myself better than a billion other people. Gerbil, if the nightmare is too bad, is it OK if I wake you up to give me a hug, so we can let Tiger and Simba sleep?

Me: Um, sure, sure.

Selen: That's really a valuable contribution to your new family, Gerbil. Shadow says thank you. Show him how you want to be wakened. The right way for us is to touch on the bottom of the foot, but be careful of the claws.

Me: Claws? Sir, are you a lion person?

Selen: No, an otter. Have Shadow show you pictures of me, and I hope we'll meet in person soon. Shadow, I think you're doing just fine. Keep doing the mind exercises we talked about, and the nightmares will fade gradually. My, I'll bet you three are getting hungry for lunch; I know I am. Angela, best of luck with your parents. I'm sure it will work out. And call me tonight to let me know how it went. OK?

Angela: OK, Selen. Thanks for talking to me. I'm sorry to bother you for, well...

Selen: A less bloody problem than Shadow and Gerbil had? But don't underestimate what you've been through. It's important for you to get it taken care of, and I want to hear how you're doing. OK, Angela?

Angela: Yes, Selen. Thank you.

Selen: You're very welcome. Goodbye now.

And a picture of a leaping fish appears at the end of the page. That session really put pressure on me! And I'll need time to think about what Selen said. But the session was going to be for Angela and I turn the focus to her.

Me: Selen is wise, don't you think?

Angela: Whew! I'm so scared!

Me: But it's important to do it, right?

Shadow (Angela translates): All the time after my parents were eaten, I was scared. But I was brave and I planned carefully and I did what I had planned, and I didn't die. I'm proud to be alive. Hardly anybody else is, who was in New York.

Angela: Those dreams. Did those things really happen?

Shadow: Yes.

So my cute little cat brother has killed at least one person with his mouth daggers, and has bad dreams about it. The person who fell, I wonder if... I suspect Shadow had quite a lot to do with that too, because of his nightmares. And he admits freely that he was afraid, something I would never have done in my village, and then turns right around and claims to be brave. Can I use that?

Me: Angela, can you do what Shadow did? Shadow, would you explain to us how you can change being scared into being brave?

Shadow (Angela translates): It's not changing. When the snowstorm started and I put on my pack and went out into the hall to leave, I didn't know if I was going to get eaten, or freeze, or starve, or wander in the forest for the rest of my life, and I was so scared, so scared! But I knew that my Chang seeds were getting low, and it was just luck that I hadn't been found yet, and I had to get out. So I said to myself, I'm going to do it, and I'm going to do my best, and I'm not going to let anything stop me, particularly not my fear. That's what my parents taught me and that's what I did. Angela, you can do the same thing.

Angela: You're so brave, Shadow! I'm going to try. I'll do my best too.

Shadow: You're brave too. (I spotted the sign. This isn't the definition of brave that my parents taught me. Angela doesn't need a lesson in Albanian courage right now, though.)

Angela: Well. Selen said we should do ordinary things this afternoon to calm our nerves. Here's something ordinary: lunch. You had me for lunch yesterday, so how about I treat you today?

Me: Sure. But have we gone past lunch time really? I'm getting hungry, but not that hungry.

Shadow: It's eleven thirty. (I know all the number signs, but... )

Me: I don't know your time numbers. Is that before or after lunch?

Angela: Half an hour before. But we have to make the stuff.

Me: What do you think of this idea? We have to return the embroidery rings to Mrs. Ruka; we'll go over there and show her my shirt. Then, I wonder. I'm thinking about checking how Phil is doing. But maybe that's stupid. He might think I was rubbing it in, that I got you back, or you might get all wierd again. What do you and Shadow think?

Angela: You say ``acting like a jackass''. I'm going to keep telling myself I'm not a tart until I make it true. I'll behave myself in front of Phil. And I won't cry. Do you think I should apologize to him, for embarrassing him? Shadow says yes. He says he'll go in first and ask Phil if he wants to see us.

Me: OK, let's do that, and it all happens on the other side of the stream, no going back and forth. And later I want to run. I feel like something has me all tied up, and the running will make me feel better. You run, don't you, Angela?

Angela: Sure. I'm not much for sports but I'm better at that than my parents and I can make sure they know it. Let's get going; talk on the way.

Mrs. Ruka compliments us on how nice my shirt came out, and jokes that she knew it would help me find a ``nice'' young lady, at which comment Angela blushes deeply. Phil is gracious. His foot is wrapped across the bottom in a bandage, and he has metal crutches. I try them out; they're much better than the forked sticks my father found and cut for me when I was little and broke my ankle. Phil and his younger sister even invite us to stay for lunch, and Angela has the attitude to say yes. The lunch turns out to be pairs of bread slices, one smeared with sticky red sweet stuff and one with a sticky salty and oily mixture. Angela and (surprisingly) Shadow devour this concoction with gusto. I have one pair, but I also claim the ends of the squarish loaf of bread, the best part, which they consider inedible. Making friends is important, and my technique was rather unlikely, but I'm glad it worked out. We end up back at Angela's tent.

Angela: Well, that was nice, wasn't it? I think I gave them enough truth without going into too much detail: I figured I wouldn't be able to hang on to you and I decided to get it over with in one spectacular fling. It's not quite the truth, but it's not quite a lie either.

Me: It's hard to make up the lies and to remember what you told people the last time. I can't take my eyes off Tiger's and Simba's mouth daggers and claws, but it's so much easier to just give up and not hide anything from them. Put that way it sounds cowardly, but when you're actually talking to them it's not.

Angela: Tiger asked me some questions yesterday, and I know what you mean. I couldn't hide, but also, I didn't feel I needed to, like I would with my parents and a lot of other people. I think some of Tiger rubbed off on you. I can talk with you more than with other boyfriends I've had.

Me: Um, thank you, Angela.

Shadow: The lion lessons teach you to be honest with other people about how you feel. I've read stories about people who always go around lying, and something bad always happens to them.

Me: In real life people always lie and they never get away with it; eventually they're found out, but they do it anyway. Look, yesterday I didn't finish my report because I ran out of time, and today if everything works out we're going to stay with Angela for at least some of the evening, so we won't have much chance to talk to Simba and Tiger. I want to make a good report today, and that means after every break I'm going to work on it as long as I can stand. I'd like to start now.

Angela: Were you thinking of making dinner for my parents? I'm not too sure about that.

Shadow: I'm not so sure either, but we shouldn't say it might fail so we aren't going to do it. We should make the dinner, and we'll do our best to have them happy to see us, but if they throw us out we'll bring it back here to eat it.

Me: Suppose we can't salvage the dinner? I remember when a young lady's mother chased my brother out the door and threw a pot of something at him. That was pretty funny. When you're not the one being chased out.

Angela: Right. Well, I suppose we could impose on the Marshal again.

Me: Except they would have made enough for themselves, not for us. Shadow, the bread that we would have eaten for lunch, we could have that for dinner, and some Chang seed mush.

Shadow: And cheese and yogurt for you humans. You need protein and calcium. (I don't know what those are, and Angela didn't know either; she just copied the spoken Tiger signs.) Angela and I can get started on the recipes, and you can work on your report.

Me: Well, I don't know. I think the report is pretty important. Suppose Angela's parents react badly; what's she going to do? Where this is leading is, I think both of you should also report to Tiger and Simba, and make it a good one, meaning start now and do it right. Angela, suppose you couldn't stay here with your family; where would you go? I think you should ask Tiger's permission to stay at our place, at least for tonight, and if not handled very carefully it's going to be a sexual challenge to Simba, which I don't want and I hope you don't either. So you have to convince Simba to put up with you. And you can't just talk to them; it should be written so they can read it while flying home, and we're going to be here making the dinner and getting surprised by your parents.

Shadow: We should have NetBoard live so they can contact us. Why is my report important?

Me: You're the best with people; you understand Selen; you've had lessons we haven't; and you can explain what happened to Simba and Tiger. I'll do my best but I know how little I know how to say. From Angela's and my reports they'll know how we felt and what we expect to happen, but what's real I think will come to them from you. Do a good one, please.

Angela: I understand what you're saying, but I'm not sure what to do in a report.

Shadow: The same as in a regular one, but you're trying to get Simba and Tiger to give permission, not just telling them what you did.

Angela: OK, what's in a regular report? I've never done one.

Shadow: What? Don't you have any lessons?

Angela: I did go to school, you know.

Me (in spoken signs): Pull back, both of you! Shadow, please teach Angela like you teach me.

Shadow: Sorry. We're on the same team. But all the kittens in my family, except the smallest ones, did reports, and I kind of thought everyone did except the losers who don't go to school.

Me: Like Gerbil. We should ask an adult what the lesson is that we're finding out the hard way. Later when other work is out of the way.

Shadow's tail droops; he's mortified that he thoughtlessly hurt both of us. I hug him to affirm that I still love him (what a non-Albanian concept!) and Angela joins in. I get to work writing, and Shadow is working with Angela. My report begins: ``I was a jackass today.''

My biggest worry is that I promised Angela a place with me if her parents throw her out. So here are some of the consequences, most of which I manage to express in a section of the report: It's not likely that Simba would allow us to live with them, so what does it take to get a separate tent? If I moved out, would Tiger consider that I had broken my promise to her? It looks like I've backed myself into a corner (I ask Angela for the right slang term) where any way out breaks a promise. If I joined up like this with Angela, would Tiger and Simba refuse to teach me? Are the hundred Chang bushes ``mine'' in the sense that I can count on them to fill my and Angela's bellies? And is my estimate correct that they really would feed us? I decide (and say so in the report) not to interrupt Angela and Shadow and ask them to do a web search to find out; that will be done perhaps tomorrow. Like Selen says, it's pointless to chase consequences and make plans when the earlier steps are likely to shift out from under you.

I'm going to have a section for what I did right, or what I think I did right before hearing Simba's criticism, like handling Phil, but I'm exhausted and my shirt is soaked and reeking under the arms. It will have to be washed, after the writing. A side glance reveals that both Shadow's and Angela's rectangles are more than filled, but their language skills are better than mine and I'd better push away thoughts about country bumpkinship. I take off my shirt and suggest a good relaxing run. Angela saucily copies me (Shadow rolls his eyeballs), we take off rapidly, and the physical demands of running limit the appearance of sexual challenge to Angela alone. Her tits bounce, but a lot less than some young ladies in my village (under their blouses); hers are just the right size. On the way back she calls out, ``Turn here!''

Me: Angela, part of me really wants to, but let's think about what we have to do this afternoon and how long we have to do it. And you're not remembering Shadow.

Angela (stopping): There will be plenty of time.

Me: Think about what's real.

If she were a lion woman her tail would have started straight up and would now be drooping.

Me: Come on, perk up. We'll have time for ourselves when our work is done, right? But we have to get through this afternoon and evening, and we have to do a good job, not rushed.

Angela, running again but not quickly: I'm acting like a tart.

Me: Come on, you're acting like a normal young woman. What were you going to tell yourself?

Angela: OK, I'm not a tart. And I can run faster than this!

Shadow rolls his eyeballs.

Back at Angela's tent we resume our challenging work. My report goes as smoothly as can be expected. Aah, that was hard, but it's done! I ask Angela how to post the report in its proper place, and it turns out that Shadow shows both of us; and he also sends a message to Tiger and Simba telling them where mine has gotten to, and asking them to read Angela's work too. The two of them get right to work on recipes, while I fill the rest of the period with some number study.

When we all decide it's time for another break, I remind Shadow that we missed our combat lesson yesterday.

Angela: So what shall I do? Watch?

Me: No, practice the moves. Tiger says you people don't split up jobs by men and women. Is that wrong, for you?

Angela: Well, you know, beating up people isn't very ladylike. Look who's talking.

Me: I cook now; I never did that before. You could learn something new.

Angela: And Shadow says that the lessons aren't about beating up people. OK, I'll give it a try. What do I do?

Me: Ask Shadow to show you how to fall without getting hurt. I have to do it a hundred times.

Angela: A hundred?

Me: That's what Tiger told me to do. And after that I'd like to get a lesson on arm pushing; could you tell Shadow for me?

I practically make myself dizzy dropping, rolling and bouncing back to my feet. My thighs are tired, but I'm pleased to notice that I'm stronger today than last time. Angela is able to do the move decently, imitating Shadow. I demonstrate what I did to avoid being slugged by Phil, but he seems reluctant to work on that; however, Angela isn't able to explain to me what the problem is, and he gives a frustrated sigh and does as I asked. I punch, deliberately missing. He ignores the punch and tells me (through Angela) to really try to hit him. I do so, and this time he vanishes and I end up, I'm not sure how, on my back. Shadow expects me to imitate him, and I anticipate an explosive little paw in my gut. I dodge and push his hand away, similar to what I did to Phil, but I end up going down headfirst, landing heavily on my shoulder to avoid landing on my face. Shadow shakes his head. We try it again a few times, and Angela translates his criticism unclearly: evidently I'm pushing and hitting his arm when I should be leading it, and I'm blocking his motion when I should merely get out of the way a little. He demonstrates in slow motion, and on the next try I actually do it, sort of, and remain standing and unhit as Shadow punches through where I used to be.

Shadow: That's a lot better, Gerbil. You didn't fight me that time. But there are some basic lessons that you haven't had, and I'm not an instructor, and I'm also too short to show you properly. Tomorrow Tiger and Simba have a break, and let's try to get them to give you and Angela a proper lesson. Once that's done we can really get something out of practicing together. Also we need to start making the stew, I think.

Me: I don't know about you, but I reek, and judging from what Simba told me, I think Angela's parents will be a lot happier with us if we all smell sweeter, meaning a quick shower, and washing my shirt. And I need my worm medicine and lice soap.

Angela: You have lice? And worms?

Me: Yes. They're quite common when there's no medicine to kill them. I do feel healthier now.

Do you find me disgusting, Angela? These people would be disgusted, with their emphasis on cleanliness. I'd better keep a smile on my face and a confident attitude in my imaginary tail, because I have a lot more important things to worry about than shame about worms. And so does Angela. We get moving.

Bathed, dry and smelling fresh, and after a second unnecessary ritual handwashing, we get to work on the dinner. It has meat, for a change, a package of disembodied chicken legs. Each of us will get one. Being the strongest I'm assigned to cut up the onions and potatoes, and Angela's family doesn't peel potatoes, merely scrubbing them with a brush and cutting out the rotten spots. All the nutrition is in the skin, Angela says, though I know peeled potatoes do a good job of filling my own belly. OK, Angela has stirred in the unfamiliar, pungent spice mixture, and the big pot is on the stove starting to cook. Shadow washes his hands yet again and starts up his computer.

Shadow: I have NetBoard running.

Me: Let's put your computer and our packs right next to the door. If we have to get out quickly we can just grab them.

Angela: I hope they don't throw us out.

Me: I just thought of something. We're a team, right? Your parents are going to want to get you separated and talk to you privately. If you're patching up relations with them, that's good. If they're just trying to beat you without interference from Shadow and me, that's bad. I think we have to let you decide what to do. Tell us so we understand: we're a team and we're sticking together. Or, would you wait outside for a few minutes? Or, I want to spend the rest of the evening with my parents. I won't be able to tell which is right because I won't understand most of what your parents are saying to you, and I'm not sure about Shadow either. What do you think, Shadow?

Shadow: Well... Gerbil's right. Tell us clearly how close to stick with you. Look! Someone just sent me mail... It's from Simba! From both of them, to all of us. Angela, how about you read it to Gerbil. Can you see?

Angela: We read your report, Gerbil, and, um, you are most assuredly a jackass. (Shadow giggles, then looks at me and shuts up.) Taking your questions from the top, it's Angela's responsibility, and her parents, to keep her family together. (Gulp.) Angela, if you blow it, it's out of the question for you to marry Gerbil and then live with us. You may think us cruel and uncaring, but we know what will work. You may remember that there are a whole lot of corpses littered around the landscape who we didn't save because it wouldn't have worked. And others who we held out an opportunity to, and they didn't take it. Don't be jackasses, please, any more than you already have been.

Me: Jackass one way, or jackass the other.

Angela: Yeah. They go on: There's no problem getting a place for a tent and an assigned plot of surplus Chang bushes. There would be two hundred bushes and that will be enough to feed a family of two adults and two average children. The tent costs about twenty fangs.

Me: Which I don't have. How about you?

Angela: No. Shadow has it but says we should think twice before going there again, whatever he means by that. Quote: It takes a lot more than two hundred bushes and a tent to support a family, and Gerbil, you made a promise to Tiger which involves, among other things, rapid learning, which precludes an adult-type job, and Angela has similar constraints though not with us. We're not going to forbid you two to mess up your lives, but look at what's real: if you make an independent family it's not going to work and it's not going to be independent. Angela, if you get yourself booted out of your family, go to the refugee camp and sleep there, and plan on trying to find a place with a human family with children of a similar age as yourself. Not here.

Me: I made a promise to you.

Angela (smiling ruefully): You were a jackass. I won't hold you to it. I'll do as Simba says. There's more: Remember, all of you: when you attack you lose. Don't fight verbally, and particularly not physically. Shadow, keep your claws to yourself. Help Angela's parents to do what's right, and if anyone's going to be a jackass let it be them, not you. Understand?

Me: Yes, Simba. (Giggle.) It's like he's right here talking to me. He told me the same thing, about my relation to you: don't let it be me who messes up.

Angela: Thank you, Simba. Now here's some praise. Gerbil, your recovery of Angela was well done, and we're proud that our example prompted you to help Phil, not pound him. Shadow, your support was well done too, particularly the idea to bring in Selen. Like we talked about earlier, it's important to know when you're out of your depth, and to bring in outside help. The open NetBoard channel was also a good tactical idea, and we'll get on as soon as the channel opens up. You won't have time for a running commentary, but keep us informed where and when you're going to be changing location. We'll support you within reason, and we've indicated what that doesn't mean. Good luck.

Me: Good luck, you're going to need it, they say. Well. How's the food doing?

Shadow: I think we should turn the power down. It's starting to boil on the bottom, but not the top. Do you hear something?

Angela, peeking outside: It's just the neighbors going in their tent... They're here! They'll be here in a second! Where shall we stand?

Me: Shadow beside the door, you next, then me! Quick! Smile and look normal!

Like when I've stolen a cake and it's in my pocket and my mother is checking them. Under my arms it's wet and I hope it doesn't show on my shirt again, too quickly. Shadow has a cute posture and he's using it now. The tent flap is lifted.

Large man: What in hell is that? And who are you?

Angela: This is Shadow, the Marshal's younger orphan, and this is Gerbil, my new boyfriend. Gerbil, Shadow, this is my father, Rafe Harris, and my mother, Madeline Harris. (So what do I call him?)

Shadow: How do you do, Mr. Harris?

Me, copying in spoken signs: How do you do, Mr. Harris?

Mr. Harris: And what are you doing here?

Me: We made food for the family.

Angela: It's your favorite, chicken curry. (I'm guessing most of that. I hadn't thought ahead: Angela's mouth and mind will be busy with her father, and there will be precious little Shqip coming my way.)

Mrs. Harris: Oh, how nice! (I'm guessing. That's what a mother would say.)

Mr. Harris: Don't try to bribe me with food. Let me guess: this friend you were visiting yesterday wasn't exactly female.

Me: My parents Tiger and Simba were happy to talk to Angela. (Utilize the connection to Tiger and Simba. But will he remember that they're senior around here? My real parents roll over in their grave of piled bricks. Mrs. Harris has been looking worried all along.)

Mr. Harris: I'm not talking to you, you hairy Illyrian. Why don't you just go home to Tiger and Simba, and take your little orphan with you? And I'll have a talk with you, you little tart!

Angela: Dad, I'm not a tart any more, and the three of us are a team.

Me and Shadow, not exactly in unison: Yes, we're a team, and she's not a tart.

Mr. Harris: You're going to be a team of hairy floor mops, a big one and a little one, in about three seconds. One, two...

Me, struggling to hide boiling combat blood: I'm not Tommy Millikan and Angela isn't a girl. You made lost one kitten; don't make this one be lost! (Damn, I never learned the sign for ``daughter''! He's loading up to strike.)

Shadow: You threw her in the trash when you called her a tart. You're getting your daughter back! Don't throw her in the trash again! (His gestures at the trash can let me interpret the meaning.)

Mr. Harris: As for you... (Shadow draws back his lips revealing his mouth daggers.)

Me (in Shqip, whispering): Angela! The word for ``kill'', quick!

Angela: It's ``*mrogau''.

Me: Shadow, you killed once; don't do it again!

Shadow: I won't kill him, but I won't abandon my team either. Angela is our team member, and you're not going to beat her up, and you're not going to call her a tart, because she's not!

Mr. Harris: And who are you, little lion person, to tell me what to do?

Shadow: I'm Shadow L19662-1623.

The father reaches out to grab Shadow and throw him out of the tent, but Shadow's hands are upraised, with claws extended.

Shadow: Did you want to shake hands? Tommy Millikan didn't have claws.

Me: Attack and lose. Lose daughter. Lose...

Angela: Blood. How would you like to have me move into the refugee camp, if that's what it's going to take to not be a tart?

Mrs. Harris: Rafe, please; Angela is your daughter! Be careful with the lion!

Mr. Harris: Shut up, woman! You, little tart, are going to get the tar whupped out of you!

Angela: We're leaving.

Mrs. Harris: Rafe, I'm not going to let my daughter live in that flea-infested refugee camp! If she leaves I'm going with her. (She moves over next to me.)

Mr. Harris: Then get out, all of you!

Me: Stop! This family break. Simba say your job not break family. Shadow please help say it.

Shadow: Angela, Simba put a responsibility on you to keep your family together.

Angela: We don't act like jackasses, and we didn't! Daddy's the one who's acting like an Illyrian jackass. Sorry, Gerbil.

Me: My parents dead because they jackass. I jackass too. I understand jackass. I know jackass when I see it.

Mr. Harris: Don't you call me a jackass!

Angela: Because you don't like it, or because you can honestly say you're a calm, rational, caring person?

Mrs. Harris: Angela is right, Rafe. Take a deep breath. It will work out.

Me: My parents lost everything because they forgot what's real. You also lose everything except not dead. In future you can remember you lose daughter. Not have to lose. Say, Angela not tart.

Mrs. Harris: Gerbil is right. Angela is a good girl. She's your daughter, Rafe, and you love her!

Mr. Harris: Shaddup! Hey, how do they know about that twerp Tommy? Have you been (washing?) our family's dirty (whatever) in public?

Angela: Yes! To several people, and they helped me. The sunlight makes it stop stinking.

Me: Honest works better.

Shadow: That's right: honest and real.

Me: And real is, Angela isn't a tart. Why do you want her to be one?

Mr. Harris: I don't!

Shadow: Then say it, and that will make it true: Angela is not a tart!

Mr. Harris: But she was tarting around with that Tommy Millikan and God knows how many boys since then!

Me: That's not tart; young man and young woman do that, and parent, Shadow, please help with words.

Angela: Young men and young women make out. The smarter ones don't do it on the couch. Parents don't like it, but it's not tart behavior.

Mr. Harris: You were my little girl!

Angela: I'm sorry, Daddy. I grew up on you.

Shadow: Mrs. Harris, do you suppose you could take a look at the dinner? I don't know if we're going to get to eat it, but I'd feel bad if it burned on the bottom. (Good move, Shadow, to distract.)

Mrs. Harris: I turned the power down some more.

Mr. Harris: What am I going to do with you?

Angela: Tell me I'm a normal young lady, not a little girl and not a tart!

Mr. Harris: Do you have anything to say about that, Illyrian?

Me: Angela isn't a tart. I say more but not know enough words.

Mr. Harris: I'll bet you don't need much words for what you do to her.

Don't make excuses; don't emphasize what we didn't do, which he won't believe. A long and boring nonsexual list, carefully edited, will smooth the waters best.

Me: May Angela help translate the words? Today we got counseling about how Angela could have, um, a happier relation with her family. (Mr. Harris glowers even more than usual but stays silent, for which I thank him.) After that we all wrote a report about what we had learned and what we planned to do. Simba and Tiger read the reports and decide what I need more lessons in, and it's also important for my language practice. Then we ran; Shadow can tell you the names of the trails and how far it was. After that, um, let me see, I worked on numbers, which is also language practice, reading the lessons, and Angela and Shadow picked the recipe for dinner. After that we had a lesson from Shadow on unarmed combat. We washed up, and cooked the dinner.

Mr. Harris: I imagine that's not all you did.

Me: I have to be honest: we thought about sex. We also thought we could easily run out of time for the other things we wanted to do. When you were a young man, did you also think of sex?

Mr. Harris: I don't like you messing with my little girl.

Me: Parents never like it. But the way I see it, if a young lady or young man don't do what they're supposed to, they'll never have a husband or wife. I've seen it happen in my village.

Mr. Harris: So the voice of experience counsels tarting around.

Me: I know someone who was a very prolific lover, but I also know it didn't get him a wife. To be husband and wife you need to be a team, and you need to find someone who that will work with. You don't always win, so you have to pick yourself up and try again.

Blatantly recycling Tiger's and Simba's speeches to me, but there's no chance Mr. Harris will realize that. I hope we're making progress, not just stoking him up for a final explosion.

Mr. Harris: And where do you fit in to this teamwork, little lion?

Is it my imagination, or was he thinking of an example of what Shadow did and then decided to hold it back?

Shadow: I'm Gerbil's brother. When he doesn't know how we do things, I tell him. He and Angela include me in the team, and I don't interfere when they're building their own teamwork.

Mr. Harris: I'd think teaching an Illyrian unarmed combat would be like bringing coals to Newcastle.

Shadow: Newcastle? I'm sorry, sir; I don't understand. (Neither do I despite Angela's translation.)

Mr. Harris: They already have more than enough training.

Me: I've learned to respect Tiger's and Shadow's combat skills. Today we were practicing punching. I can't hit him. I kept him from hitting me too, but I went on my butt or my face most of the time. He didn't.

Shadow: Having us on Angela's side is something good, not something to be angry about.

Mr. Harris: You're not a parent, little lion.

Insight! I can just see Angela and Tommy Millikan, and hiding boyfriends and lying about them to her father, and with Angela's attitude, open defiance. If I pulled any of that on Simba he'd beat me for sure. But he'd also detail what I'd screwed up, and how he wanted me to change my behavior.

Me: Sir, if the problem is sexual challenge, Simba has instructed me how I'm to behave toward him. I'm willing to follow the same rules with you. Translate it, Angela! Then learn the rules from me and Simba. Come on, be brave!

Angela finally gets it out, blushing and stammering. I stand with my tail confidently high. From the corner of my eye I see Shadow's real tail. Mr. Harris glowers more.

Mr. Harris: You have a big mouth, bringing that up.

Me: Yes, sir. But it's important to be clear what I mean, and what I think the problem might be.

Mr. Harris: So is that your idea of a peace offering?

Me: Yes, sir.

Mr. Harris: Well. What did you say your name was?

Me: It's Gerbil, sir.

Mr. Harris: Gerbil. A funny nickname. Well, I haven't been able to do much with Angela. If you think you can do a better job, we can see how it goes.

Me: Thank you, sir. Does that mean Shadow and I are staying for dinner? If so I should tell Tiger and Simba. There's enough food for everyone.

Shadow: The Lesser Floor Mop will tell them. My session is live.

Mr. Harris: Someone was listening?

Shadow: No, a NetBoard session. If we were moving or if we needed advice, we didn't want the delay of setting up the session and getting Tiger or Simba on. Simba says it's OK.

Mr. Harris: Who was this person you say you got counseling from?

Shadow: His name is Selen. He's very wise. He helped me straighten out my head after I escaped from New York. I was pretty steady, as a lion should be, but I did need help. Selen told me to show Gerbil and Angela his picture. Would you and Mrs. Harris like to see? Here's the counseling center, and the link to his home page; there he is, and his mate Titania. Don't they look kind and wise?

Mr. Harris: Those aren't lion people.

Shadow: They're otters. They were built for epsilon Eridani, to work in the water. Here are some more pictures.

Mr. Harris: I'm not sure I like this business of building any kind of critter you feel like.

Me: I'm not sure, but I heard that the people who did it weren't too comfortable either. It must have been one of those choices where whatever you do is wrong. Maybe we can get Tiger or Simba to tell us about it.

Shadow: This is a good picture someone took of them jumping off the rocks. You're supposed to check for rocks under the water before doing that. I'm sure they did. I wonder how Titania took that one from underwater. Doesn't Selen just look like he belongs there? He must be swimming real fast. Gerbil, remember how slow we were, how the human kid just passed us? Swimming is fun, and we should all practice as a team.

Me (in spoken signs, diverting attention from how Angela might be dressed): Has anyone been looking at the dinner? I guess I'm closest... It looks OK. Mrs. Harris, what do you think?

Mrs. Harris: If you'll excuse me I'll just get a fork. I think these are about done, don't you?

Me: I'm not skilled. But I am hungry. Does everyone want to eat now?

The dinner goes as smoothly as could be expected. Mr. Harris actually chokes up a word of praise to us for the flavor, which I'm not familiar with and which will need some time for me to get used to it. I try to get Shadow to ask what Mr. Harris' job is, but finally I just tell Angela to translate my question, not to answer it herself. It turns out that he's the building maintenance supervisor at the refugee camp, leading a crew of five people to keep the buildings and latrines sanitary, the roofs patched, and so forth. Mr. Harris is not impressed with the cleanliness of the Illyrian refugees.

Me: I've noticed that you people take cleanliness very seriously, and I've tried to learn the procedures. Your water machines are a marvel! In my village all the water had to be carried (by the younger person, me) in a bucket from the stream.

Mr. Harris: Water machine: is Angela translating that right? I think you're talking about a faucet. Didn't you have piped water? Things like our ``water machines'' in your house?

Me: There was something, but no water came out, just a little rust powder when I played with it. Maybe it broke, before I was born. I know things break; we had a clock and I remember seeing the numbers changing, but I was too little to learn to read them. Hmm. Shadow, in our tent we have no water machine, but you and I never fill the vat. What fills it? (Mr. Harris laughs.)

Shadow: Snowball delivery! If you've noticed the funnel at the back of the tent, snowballs are dropped in it whenever the water gets low, generally during the evening because we use the most water preparing dinner and washing the dishes.

Me: Snow? In the middle of summer? And what drops it?

Shadow: A chip, like is in the exercise bar or the hover vehicles. Somewhere near here there's a lake of pure water. The chip dips in and freezes some, then flies to whoever needs it.

Me: You people have such magic! You know, I always say ``you people''; Tiger never told me what you call yourselves. You know, like I'm Albanian.

Mr. Harris: Albanian! I guess you have the best chance to keep Angela in line: the meanest of the mean. We're Canadian, from Manitoba. The First Division has people from all over the world, but most are from North America.

Angela doesn't look happy, but translates her father's words. My question wasn't answered; I know what he is, but not what the team is. Well, maybe I do: ``First Division''. It will have to do. But I'll have to dig with Angela; I don't even know if Manitoba is in or out of North America, wherever that is, nor what the significance of ``Canadian'' is. And now isn't the time to parade my ignorance. Angela just had a load of crap dumped on her.

Me: Perhaps tomorrow Angela can show me some pictures of Manitoba. It's true that Albanians are famous for toughness, but, well, I respect Tiger and Simba and Shadow and they respect me, and mutual respect is also working out well with Angela.

Shadow: Aren't you going to eat your bone, Gerbil? (He displays his jagged end. I'm glad to change topics.)

Me: No, and you should be careful eating that. We had a rule to not give chicken bones to our dogs because the pieces might cut their guts from inside.

Shadow: Lion people don't like dogs, and not just because we're a lot smarter. I'm careful to crunch the bone into small bits that won't hurt me and that my stomach can dissolve. We put two hundred milliliters of vinegar in this stuff and the bone is soft. I ate a lot harder bones than this in the New York forest. You need the calcium; all humans do. Come on, eat it.

Mr. Harris: Let's see you play the lion.

I don't like being pushed into things, particularly involving eating unfamiliar nonfoods, but Shadow thinks it's important for my nutrition, and I have my image to maintain as a ravening wolf. I crush the bone in the middle; like Shadow said, it's not that hard. There's marrow inside to reward me. And following my warning to Shadow, I chew the pieces thorougly before washing them down with my juice.

Me (showing the crushed ends): Not bad. The marrow is tasty.

Mr. Harris: I can't let you get the better of me, can I?

Shadow: The females actually need the calcium more. Come on, Mrs. Harris; see what Gerbil did? He bit it in the middle to get started. The ends might be too hard for you humans but I'm going to finish mine.

Angela, with her defiant streak, doesn't need any push from Shadow. Soon all our bones are gone or reduced to end knuckles.

Me: Shadow, with teeth like yours I'm surprised our family doesn't eat meat very often. Why is that?

Shadow: Lion people make all the protein we need in our livers, so we don't need meat. And really, Chang seeds have complete protein, so neither do you. But Tiger and Simba serve even less meat than my parents did. They told me why: on Thor they had to make every species on the planet, and when you've coded up the genome and nursed the things from eggs and cared for them daily, helping them to survive, you kind of get turned off to eating them, like you were eating a pet. I know the first time I caught a cute little bunny and it was struggling in my paws and I had to put my fangs through its throat and then eat it raw, I felt like I was going to eat Bambi's friend Thumper. I couldn't do it, and the rabbit almost got away. But I remembered the nature video I'd seen about bobcats, and I knew I could either lie down right there and die, or eat that rabbit, and I did.

Mr. Harris: Raw rabbit? For a lion person is that like Japanese sashimi? Raw fish?

Shadow: I suspected I didn't have enough Chang seeds to make it to the refugee camp, and I'd have to hunt like a bobcat in the snow, or die. I'd made it out of New York alive, and I intended not to waste my life by not being tough enough. I have a better body than any animal on this planet, and better training than any human, and I refused to be killed.

Me: I'm proud to be his brother, and Angela is lucky to be on his team.

Angela puts her arms around Shadow, who looks bashful. She seems about to turn my way, but I guess she picks up my subtle signal and cools it.

Me: Well, if we're all done eating we should start washing the dishes.

Angela: My parents and I will handle that, as a team. Gerbil and Shadow, thank you so much for standing by me and helping me when most people... wouldn't have.

Me: Don't translate. Make a team with your father like what you've been doing with me and Shadow. OK?

Angela: OK, I'll try my best. Really, thanks. Would you contact Selen? I don't think I should do it with my father watching.

Me: Right. Come over to our place tomorrow after breakfast. OK?

Angela: OK. See you.

Shadow (out of earshot): Whew! Hard, but good teamwork.

Me: Right.

And I put my arm around Shadow. But my hard work is far from over. As we worked on various tasks I took the opportunity to think about what Selen said to me. I can't be Shadow's brother and have a vendetta against Tiger hanging over us, which he would be obligated to take the other side of. Well, Simba and Selen are surprisingly able to know about it, disagree with it, yet treat me as a non-enemy. But that kind of flexibility is unnatural, at least for the likes of me, and I'd be very surprised if Shadow could do it either.

What Selen said, and what I replied, is key here: slaughter us, or stand aside and watch us slaughter our neighbors. Everyone has to do population control for it to work; if we refuse we'll push aside the others. It was wrong to kill my parents, but wrong to stand aside too. No Albanian could understand that; nobody would even think beyond getting as much for our village as he could, and to hell with everyone else. Am I infected by foreign devils? I look at what's real, and I understand better because people have been showing me, but that's how I've always been, and until now it's gotten me in trouble with my people. Too bad. And here we are at our tent. I take a deep breath.

Tiger: So were you successful? And what's this about the Lesser Floor Mop?

Shadow: You should have seen that old tyrannosaurus!

Me: Shadow, please stop. (In Shqip:) Tiger, Simba, I know you want to hear how it went with Angela. She thinks she and her father can get back into teamwork. But you remember we talked to Selen? He specifically gave me some advice on our agreement, and I've been doing a lot of thinking, between lessons and making food and avoiding being turned into the Big Floor Mop. I've come to a conclusion.

Tiger: What brought this on so quick? My duties here are only beginning. You know that.

Me: It's Shadow. How can I be his brother; how can I be on his team when I have that agreement hanging over you? And he asked Selen, what agreement? It's not honest to keep it secret from him. Would you please tell him? Now.

Tiger: I'm aware that he asked Selen, and you insisted that I be the one to tell it. Both Selen and I agree with your judgement there, I might add. Well, Shadow, you have some growing up to do. Had you figured it out? I personally killed both of Gerbil's parents, and probably his brother too, when I annihilated their missile sites, since his brother was on the missile team. How do you think Gerbil feels about that? What do you think he'd like to do about it?

Shadow: He's mad? But he acts pretty normal around you.

Tiger: He's grown up too. If you got your claws into the people who ate your family, what would you want to do to them?

Shadow: Tear them into little pieces! Gerbil... So why didn't you?

Me: I tried. Twice. You don't think I could kill Tiger, do you, without her cooperation? I felt so alone, and I was so ashamed of myself, that I wanted to die. Tiger, I think you should tell what you did.

Tiger: I made a promise to Gerbil. He's to grow strong with us and learn to serve the Illyrian people. When my duties here are finished, then if he still feels the same way, I'll allow him to kill me. I knew that as an Albanian he had a duty to avenge his parents, therefore to stay alive. It worked.

Shadow: I don't like that! Gerbil and I are supposed to be a team. But I can't be on the same team as someone who's going to kill you!

Tiger: Simba is. Selen is. I am. Like I said, you have some growing up to do. I think Gerbil is worried about that.

Shadow: I'm glad I'm not an adult! You're all crazy! But Gerbil's right to feel like that, and it's all wrong, and you can't kill Tiger! I won't let you!

Tiger: I made a promise to him. Are you saying you're going to prevent me from delivering on it?

Shadow: Yes! You're crazy to promise that! It's my duty to save your life.

Tiger: And who's been around in this world considerably longer than who? Who knows what can be gotten by taking a risk, and has the experience to judge when it's worth it?

Shadow: You just came to Earth when I was eight! You don't know everything about Earth.

Tiger: Sassy, aren't we? So where do you think I was when Thor was a barren rockball with a wisp of argon and nitrogen for an atmosphere? We left Earth for the epsilon Eridani system when we were twenty years older than your parents; our oldest kitten was mated and she had one eight years old. We have a lot of experience with Earth, and a lot with Gondor. Impressed?

Shadow: But you can't just let Gerbil kill you!

Tiger: Yes I can, and I expect you to go along, to not interfere. Will you?

Shadow: Well... Yes, Tiger. But it won't be the same, me and Gerbil.

Tiger: Thank you, Shadow. Now, Gerbil, you're rushing the schedule, because the vendetta is casting a shadow over Shadow, and it's transparent what your conclusion is. But remember, I represent your parents in this too; it's my and Simba's responsibility to see that you treat them right. I'd like to be convinced that you're doing so. Obviously I did wrong when I killed them. So what got me off the hook? Specifically, are you wriggling out of your responsibility simply to avoid losing Shadow?

Me: No! I think you know me better than that. Selen showed me that sometimes every choice you make is wrong. Shadow, you remember what he said, right? Now I told him that your choice was to slaughter the people in my village, or let us push aside and slaughter the other Illyrians who were controlling their population. Everyone was agreed that we wouldn't let you geld us, as they said; we'd fight and win, like we always had. I had four flocks out, my family's two plus two neighbors, because I'm good handling sheep and bad handling a rifle, and my father didn't want all the sheep shot or stolen or run off in the fighting. They fought. You could have given up and left, which would have been wrong, or fought back, as you did, which was also wrong. I don't forgive you for killing my family, but I don't think any more that I should kill you. That's just another wrong thing piled up. It's jackass behavior, and I'm tired of being a jackass.

Tiger: So what would your parents think of not getting proper Albanian vengeance?

Me: They'd say I had sold them out, like you did, so Shadow wouldn't hate me. They'd say I was full of cowardly thoughts and behavior, and infested with foreign vermin ideas. Not only do I not deserve my Albanian name, but I'm not Albanian at all.

Tiger: And what do you think about that?

Me: They couldn't understand what's real. I told you what I thought about how long we could continue to raid our neighbors, but there was no point even talking about that with anybody, because they were so Albanian; they couldn't understand. Maybe they're right, that I'm not Albanian any more.

Tiger: Do you want to stop being Albanian?

Me: No! It's good to be Albanian! We're strong and tough and we're not dummies, like people around here seem to think.

Tiger: I hope I'm not one of the people you have in mind. I have quite a number of criticisms of Albanian ways, some of which unfortunately have to be expressed with my rifle, but you're right that there's good in the Albanians too, and you've shown me more that I didn't know about. Do stay solid on your foundation, Gerbil. Simba, do you have anything to add?

Simba: No; I think both of you have covered all the needed points.

Tiger: Well, then, Gerbil, I promised you a chance to get your hands around my neck, like you were trying to do a few days ago. (She kneels.)

Me: I don't want to do that, Tiger. Um, I noticed that in this family people hug. I think I ought to start doing that. Is that OK? But I wish you wouldn't do it in front of my male friends.

Tiger enfolds me in a big hug, and I put my arms around her solid mass. She has such a spicy scent; I don't know the name. I feel a tear running down my cheek. I felt so alone, everyone gone from my life, and I couldn't figure out what was real and what was right. Now I can really let myself be part of this crazy family. There are lots more tears. Shadow joins us at butt level and I reach down to pet him; and Simba hugs us both on the other side.

Tiger: Thank you, Gerbil, for letting me live.

By mutual consent we untangle ourselves, and I sit on my mat, Shadow beside me. I'm exhausted by this wrenching day! But I shut up Shadow earlier...

Me: Shadow, I think you were telling Tiger and Simba about the Lesser Floor Mop. (Hey, I said that all in Tiger signs! I remembered the signs Shadow had used.)

Shadow: Yeah! He said he'd turn us into a team of hairy floor mops, a big one and a little one, if we didn't get out of there by the time he counted to three. Boy, was he mean, at first. But Gerbil got him cooled off, and Angela and I helped on that. Gerbil is getting so good speaking Tiger signs! Gerbil thought Angela was challenging him...

The conversion of Angela's father was judged to be well done. A little boy would be proud to be told that. A young man who's had to take responsibility for his situation, and who's been encouraged to do that, would already be proud, and would be pleased that his parents recognize his accomplishment. Should I be thinking like that: ``parents recognize''? Let's face it, Father and Mother, you aren't here, because you were trying to shoot someone who is here, plus some stuff I'm really not ready to look in the face yet. Tiger has offered me a place to plant my foundation, and I've convinced myself that she may not have done right by you, but she did the least wrong that she could. So I'm going to let her and Simba act like parents for me. And this is the last time I'm going to go over that argument. An Albanian man doesn't dwell on what's lost; he attends to what isn't lost, and grows and thrives.

I'm exhausted, but too full of jumpy thoughts to think of sleep. I start my computer and report to Selen, as I had promised, with a little help from Shadow starting the program and typing in the special URL Selen gave us. He's also pleased that Angela is still with her family. If there had been a blowup I'm sure Angela would have come over here first, before going or being diverted to the refugee camp. I also tell Selen that I'd ended the vendetta. It turns out that Selen is Tiger's son! In my experience housecats rarely give birth to river otters, and I'll have to investigate that with Tiger, but later, definitely not tonight. Afterward Shadow and I fly on the simulator, just around our area as far as Lake Shkodër, which from some of our high pastures you can just barely see far off in the opposite valley. My landing today is not too bad, in the sense that I touch down actually on the runway before skidding into the weeds.

Tonight I include myself in the bedtime hugs. I still cry silently for my parents, my brother and my cute little baby sister.

Next Previous Contents